Why the agriculture industry hates Chipotle

Published online: Oct 15, 2013
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People love Chipotle's "The Scarecrow"-a touching animated short film that's basically a polemic on industrial food.

The agriculture industry hates it.

But the fast-growing burrito chain doesn't care. The company's indifference has been on display in recent days as it stands by its latest viral Web video, which portrays the industry as rampant with animal mistreatment and questionable production practices-all set to the haunting cover of "Pure Imagination" sung by Grammy-winner Fiona Apple.

The video, which has climbed to nearly 7 million combined views, is part of the 20-year-old, 1,500-plus location company's Food With Integrity advertising campaign, which advocates sustainable, locally sourced and hormone-, antibiotic- and genetically modified organism-free products, while portraying other production practices in a negative light.

Chipotle claims to spend only 1.75 percent of its revenue on advertising-half of what most fast-food companies spend-and has seen its revenue grow 16 percent in the first half of 2013, compared with the same period last year.

However, one number is not going up for the burrito giant: friends in the agriculture industry.

"In general, this romanticized view of agriculture is not going to be able to feed the world," said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, of what the industry sees as Chipotle pushing its ideals on consumers.

Chipotle's latest video, in particular, has ruffled the feathers of the NCC, because it shows chickens being injected with what seem to be hormones even though those are not allowed in poultry production.

"I don't know if it qualifies as an ad, but if it does, it's false advertising," Super said. "We are for choice in the marketplace. We have chicken producers who produce organic, natural, no antibiotic, but we don't think it's beneficial to demonize one product system over the other. We all need to work together."

One of the most emotional moments of the video-a close-up showing the sad eyes of a cow in a crate-is also inaccurate, several groups pointed out.

"There's a reason why it's done in a cartoon because you won't find that in a meatpacking plant," said Eric Mittenthal, spokesman for the American Meat Institute. Mittenthal and other conventional agriculture supporters tweeted a "Funny or Die" parody that mocked the video as "emotional manipulation" cleverly used to sell burritos.

The agriculture industry fears that Chipotle, more than just influencing consumer behavior, could ultimately help drive policy either by bolstering the grass-roots good-food movement or by having the ear of members of Congress. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) reintroduced a bill banning nontherapeutic uses of medically important antibiotics in food animal production earlier this year, but the proposal has yet to gain traction.

In the past, Chipotle founder Steve Ells has appeared on Capitol Hill to advocate Slaughter's legislation because the top brass of the company feels antibiotics are overused in farm production. But Chipotle plans to continue its advocacy through advertising and stay out of formal lobbying and contributing to campaigns, company spokesman Chris Arnold told POLITICO.

"Our focus is on running restaurants, not dictating public policy," he said.

"What we're trying to do with these kinds of communications is bring people in through entertainment and leave them learning something that they didn't know about issues in food before, so the idea is to spark conversations."

"The idea is to get people to think. The idea is to get people to find more information. And that's happening. And the reaction that you see to a film like this-both good and bad-is exactly the intention," he said.

But major ag groups think Chipotle is refusing to engage in the conversation it hoped to start.

Both the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and the Animal Agriculture Alliance, which represent the most powerful players in agriculture, reached out to Chipotle last week to express their disapproval of the company's depiction of the food system. The groups have invited Ells to tour farms and have a public discussion about the video, but those offers have so far been turned down.

In a statement released by the Animal Agriculture Alliance after Chipotle declined an invitation to attend an event with the group's members, the alliance said: "It seems that Chipotle wants to live in their fictitious virtual world instead of having meaningful - and real - conversations with the very people that supply their restaurants with food."

"It's a fabrication of how food is produced and fabrication that drives the sales for food they produce," said Randy Krotz, executive director for the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. "It doesn't seem like they need to stoop to this kind of marketing campaign."

Asked about the scenes that have generated the most criticism, Chipotle's Arnold responded: "I think it would be a misrepresentation if we didn't portray it in a fictional context. I think when you have a film with robotic crows people understand that that's not real."

"This is a fictitious film set in a future world that speaks to very real issues in food. The underlying issues that are portrayed in the film are things like the overuse of antibiotics, the harsh crowding of animals, the extent to which food is processed are very real issues," Arnold said.

Chipotle has its champions, including a few high-profile voices in the so-called good-food movement.

"I think it's terrific they're trying to start a conversation about not just the attributes of their food but also about where it comes from," Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," told POLITICO. "I can understand why that's threatening to companies who don't have a good story to tell."

"I think it's priceless that the food industry is upset by what they see as deceptive marketing, when their use of false imagery is rampant," added Pollan, citing the fact that big meat companies often use images of small, idyllic farms with red barns and rolling hills to sell their products. "It's the pot calling the kettle black."

But the bitterness felt by the industry isn't just tied to Chipotle's latest advertisement. The company, which once counted McDonald's Corp. as its largest investor, has been making enemies in the livestock and biotech industries with its highly publicized push against GMO ingredients and toward antibiotic-free meat.

Chipotle sources dairy from cows not treated with synthetic hormones, pork from pigs raised outdoors or in "deeply bedded pens," and the company says it tries to source produce locally when possible.

But with less than 2 percent of the U.S. population involved in food production and the world's growing population to feed, the agriculture industry has argued that turning away from efficiency-boosting technology, like GMOs and synthetic hormones, will leave people hungry.

It is stymying innovation, said Cathleen Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture at The Biotechnology Industry Organization. "It's unfortunate when marketing such as this is used, because it could jeopardize our common goal of feeding the world's growing population."

The latest video follows another similarly themed animated commercial, "Back to the Start," which made a splash and angered ag groups when it aired during the Grammy Awards last year, featuring a Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay's "The Scientist." That video has nearly 8 million views on YouTube, and Arnold said the views are just a sign that the company's drawing people into the conversation on food.

"What we would like to see that `The Scarecrow' portrays is a system where [antibiotic- and GMO-free] is not the niche, where that is the system, and that's what we would like to see. We understand that we're not there yet. We understand that the food system isn't there as a whole," he said.

Source: www.politico.com